For every Burmese python removed from South Florida’s soggy wild lands, another 99 of the invasive snakes go unseen, researchers believe.
The fast-breeding snakes can grow to 20 feet long — the largest Burmese python captured in Florida measured 18 feet, 8 inches — but have such a natural camouflage that even expert hunters may overlook one just a few feet away, Sarah Funck, head of the state’s Nonnative Fish and Wildlife Program, said during a Monday workshop in Key Largo.
“They are extremely difficult to find in the Everglades ecosystem,” Funck said at the public session at the Murray E. Nelson Government and Cultural Center. “As a result of their cryptic, or camouflaged pattern, researchers have estimated detection probability at less than 1 percent.”
“At this point, complete eradication is not feasible,” Funck said later. “What we’re trying to do is minimize the spread of the pythons. We want to be able to respond quickly and prevent the establishment of a new population outside the areas where they are now.”
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, working with federal officials on an “inter-agency management plan” targeting reptiles native to Southeast Asia, came to Key Largo to launch a statewide series of public workshops on the python problem.
Those efforts include expanding public involvement in hunting pythons and creating more than a dozen Cooperative Invasive Species Management Areas throughout Florida. Some 22 public areas of the mainland Everglades system outside Everglades National Park have been opened to python hunters who can take the big snakes with no hunting license required. Some who complete a python-capture training session may be eligible for cash bounties of the snake.
In the Keys, which prompted creation of an early invasive-species task force, most of the Burmese pythons have been found in the densely wooded areas of Key Largo’s hardwood hammocks. Several of the photos of captured pythons used in Funck’s presentation were from python eradication efforts on North Key Largo last winter.
“There have been a few [pythons] found elsewhere in the Keys,” Funck said, “but we believe those were released or escaped captive animals.”
Florida law bans the sale of Burmese pythons and possession of the invasive snakes as pets.
In comment sessions after the presentation, local residents suggested opening some closed Keys wildlife areas to public access. Others voiced concern about other potentially dangerous invasive reptiles, like a large water monitor recently spotted along a Key Largo canal.
Among those attending the program were Tom and Melanie Aycock, Homestead residents who volunteer with the Swamp Apes organization that has captured more than 400 pythons since 2009.
“Once you catch one, you might get hooked” on the hunt, said Tom. “I go where the pythons are.”
Melanie decided to join her husband on his expeditions. She now has caught three pythons herself. “It’s amazing,” she said. “Before I was terrified of snakes. Now I’m not afraid.”
For information on expanded python capture programs,go to MyFWC.com/Nonnatives and click on “Public Workshops.”
Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206